-- Chapter from Partners With Hashem -- "I Don't Want To Go To School": Faking or Phobia? Chapter from Partners With Hashem -- "I Don't Want To Go To School": Faking or Phobia?
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  Chapter 15 from
Partners With Hashem
Effective guidelines for successful parenting

By Dr. Meir Wikler 

Other Available Chapters
10  19 

"I Don't Want To Go To School": Faking or Phobia?

Baruch Hashem, many childhood diseases have become merely historical footnotes as a result of inoculations and vaccines which have virtually eliminated these illnesses from our children’s lives. Other less serious, but nonetheless unpleasant, ailments remain to temporarily disrupt the lives of our children, as well as our own.

Just as few children can expect to reach adulthood without contracting chicken pox, hardly any child makes it through 12 - 14 years of formal education without announcing, at least once, “I don’t want to go to school today.”

When that happens, the parents are immediately confronted with a host of serious questions. Should they allow the child to remain home from school or not? What is the best way for parents to handle this situation? The answers depend very much on why the child wants to stay home.

Is the child not feeling well? Is he or she suffering a medical problem? Or, is this more likely an example of malingering? Is there a psychological problem here or merely a social problem between classmates? Is this a symptom of a serious emotional problem or is there a test the child would like to avoid? In short, is the child simply faking an illness or has a genuine phobia developed? This chapter will offer some practical guidelines to help parents make these distinctions.

Consider the following scenario: Your alarm rings. You reflexively reach over to your clock and hit the “snooze” button. You fall back to sleep even before your head hits the pillow. Your alarm rings, again. You check the time to convince yourself that you had better get up, now. You drag yourself out of bed, thinking, “Tonight I really must get to bed earlier.” Sound familiar so far?

It is time to wake your children. You make the rounds, waking them each shortly before they have to get out of bed, acting as a human “snooze” button. You return, a few minutes later, to let them know that now they really have to get out of bed.

“You’ll be late for the school bus,” you warn them, prodding them out of the comfort of their warm beds. Eventually, your children drag themselves out of bed, starting their morning routine.

This morning’s script, however, has been altered dramatically. One of your children announces in a plaintive tone, “I don’t want to go to school.”

You may have heard this before or, perhaps, this is the first time you are confronted with this challenge. Why is your child starting the day this way? What does this mean? How should you respond? What is the best approach for you to take?

This is one of those situations in which you cannot fully assess the circumstances until you have more information. To try to intervene, at this point, would be premature. The proper response, therefore, is to gather more data.

“Why don’t you want to go to school today? Is there anything wrong at school? Does anything hurt you? What is bothering you?” Any or all of these questions convey the message that you are really interested to know what your child may be facing. These questions also signify that you are more interested in your child’s welfare than in school attendance for its own sake. Finally, they help your child focus more on the underlying problem rather than the immediate symptom.

Your child’s reply will usually fall into one of two categories. Either your child will express a specific complaint or else, a more nonspecific protest will be voiced. In each case, you will need to probe further, but the eventual responses will differ greatly.

I. Specific Complaints

When a child expresses a specific complaint which is prompting him or her to want to stay home from school, the parents must first try to understand fully the nature of the objection. Initially, all specific complaints about school should be taken seriously. Children need to feel their parents really care.

The second step is to address the problem directly. If your child is experiencing worry, pain or fear, the source of the stress must be identified and then a plan should be formulated to ameliorate the stress.

This problem solving should be done together with your child for two reasons: First, if a plan is offered which makes sense, it will help to calm your child immediately. Of course, the problem does not have to be solved before the school bus arrives, but your child needs to know that it will be worked out eventually. The second reason children need to be included in the problem-solving process is to teach them coping skills so they will be able to solve their own problems one day.

While there are countless specific complaints a child could present as a rationale for not wanting to go to school, most of them fall into one of four categories.

1. Physical/Medical Problems

The most frequent justification for not wanting to go to school is a physical complaint. “This hurts,” or, “That aches,” are common refrains.

As with all specific complaints, considerable judgment is needed in evaluating physical ailments. Is this the first time that particular body part has been identified as hurting? Are there other corroborating symptoms? Does this sound serious? Is this a child who is always crying ‘wolf’?

If you feel concern may be warranted, tell your child that you will consult the pediatrician over the phone during the next calling hour. If you feel concern may not be warranted, write the symptom down in a “doctor’s notebook” and tell your child you will monitor the situation for three days. If it stays the same or gets worse, you will call the doctor. Otherwise, it may prove to be insignificant. Either way, you have laid out a plan.

Staying home from school, however, should not be considered as an option unless your child is bleeding, vomiting, running a fever, has a history of this ailment, or is suffering another readily apparent symptom. Allowing your child to stay home from school under any other circumstance is to risk that he or she will be encouraged to repeat the same complaint in the near future.

2. Teacher/Schoolwork Problems

The next most common specific complaint expressed by children who do not want to go to school is a problem related to schoolwork or a relationship problem with a specific teacher. Once again, the problem should be taken seriously and a plan must be presented which could lead to a solution.

Suppose, for example, your child complains that he or she cannot keep up with the workload or is unable to understand what is being taught. You might offer to call the teacher, spend some time that evening assisting your child with homework, or arrange for tutoring.

If your child accuses a teacher of unfair treatment but asks you not to speak to the teacher for fear of exacerbating the problem, you could suggest alternative strategies. You could offer to speak with the principal, other parents, or an experienced outside party. In addition, you could offer to sit down later that evening to discuss what has been going on in greater detail, so that the two of you can come up with an effective plan of action.

Once again, staying home from school is simply not an acceptable resolution to teacher or schoolwork problems.

3. Bus/Bus-Driver Problems

Sometimes the problem has nothing to do with school, itself, but involves difficulties with getting to school. For example, the other children on the bus may be picking on or teasing your child. If so, you need to hear exactly what has been going on and then decide whether your child needs to learn how to protect him or herself or whether some adult intervention is warranted. Depending upon the nature of the problem, you may want to contact the bus teacher, if there is one, the principal, or even arrange alternate transportation temporarily.

If the problem is related to the bus driver, you may want to consult parents of other passengers to verify your child’s account of the objectionable behavior. Depending upon the seriousness of your child’s accusation, you may not wait for confirmation and might consider alternative transportation immediately.

4.  Social Problems

Although social problems do not relate to school directly, they are extremely important in the life of a child, and these issues play a much larger role in academic performance than some parents realize. Having conflicts with classmates could be so stressful for your child that he or she feels that school attendance is unbearable.

While you must not belittle your child’s concerns, you must also teach your child that avoidance is not a valid solution to relationship difficulties. Once again, offering to sit down later that evening to discuss the entire matter may be enough of a plan to get your child on the bus.

Later that evening, of course, you would have to deliver on your promise to help. You could do so by sharing stories (only true ones) of when you were a child and how you overcame similar obstacles, or by recommending steps your child could take to appease, confront or befriend the aggressors. If the problem is related to an overall lack of friends, then concrete suggestions for reaching out and socializing with others would be most welcomed, and offering to contact a teacher for assistance may be in order.

II. Nonspecific Complaints

Clearly the most challenging scenario is when a child is not able to articulate any specific objections to school. Instead, the child simply whines, cries or protests without providing any justification for wanting to stay home. When that happens, you have to use other indicators to help you assess the underlying meaning and message of this most disturbing behavior.

One indicator is tone of voice. Is your child tentatively hinting at the idea of not going to school or violently insisting? Is the crying a whimper or more like wailing?

Another indicator is body language. Is your child curled up in a ball, hiding under the bed cover, or is he or she simply dawdling on the way to the school bus? Does your child appear to be feeling panicky or just discouraged?

Finally, you need to consider this episode in the context of the your child’s age level and prior performance at school. Is this your child’s first week or month of school? Has your child happily attended school in the past, and if so, for how long before today’s scene? Are all separations difficult for this child, or is today’s fussing out of character for him or her?

As you evaluate your child’s protest, you should bear in mind a number of different possible explanations and underlying causes.

1. Fear of Reprisal

You’ve just asked your child, “What’s the matter? Why don’t you want to go to school today?”

Your child takes a deep breath, as if to begin to explain, and then simply repeats the protest. While no specific complaint is expressed, you get the distinct impression that your child does have a clear reason in mind for refusing to go to school.

If your child has had a good attendance record and going to school has never been a problem before, you may need to consider whether your child is withholding some important information from you because of fear of reprisal.

One simple possibility is that your child has done something for which he or she feels terribly guilty. Now your child not only wants to avoid school but also wants to hide the truth from you. He or she may be frightened about how you will react if you discover the impropriety. If you suspect that this is the case, you should point out to your child that if he or she has done something wrong, you will probably find out about it sooner or later, so he or she might as well tell you and get it over with.

Another possibility is that your child has been, or is currently being, victimized or abused in some way by another student or even an adult at school. Your child may be fearful of reporting this to you because the perpetrator has threatened your child with even worse consequences if he or she reports the abuse or harassment, or because the child assumes that you will not believe him or her.

In one case, for example, an academically weak 8-year-old boy was being molested by a tutor who was taking him out of class for remedial work. The boy withheld this information from his parents for months because the tutor had convinced the boy that he would be able to know, through his special abilities, if the boy reported the tutor to his parents or teachers.

If you do suspect that your child has been or is the victim of abuse, by anyone at any time, you should contact your pediatrician immediately for guidance and instructions.

2. Limit Testing

Did you ever watch a child step gingerly on an ice-covered puddle during the winter? Why take the risk of getting your foot wet and freezing cold, you wonder to yourself. The answer is that children constantly feel the need to test limits -- the limits of the ice covering a puddle as well as the limits of their parents’ patience and endurance.

You can therefore expect that every rule at home will be tested at least once by at least one of your children. The rule about going to school every day is no exception.

If you determine that your child’s refusal to go to school today represents a test of your ability to set limits, then by all means do not fail this test. Remain calm yet firm. Do not sound tentative or unsure. Clearly and unequivocally explain to your child that daily attendance at school is absolutely mandatory in your home.

All of this should be done without anger in your voice, on your face or in your heart. Remember, it is your child’s birthright to test limits. And it is your responsibility to enforce them.

3. Rebelliousness and Anger

At times, children who are frustrated and angry with their parents act out their rage by refusing to go to school. They suspect (and rightly so) that their parents will be more than mildly disturbed by even the prospect of a child staying home willfully. It is the shock value they are seeking.

If you determine that your child is balking at going to school as a means of provoking your anger, do not play into your child’s hand by blowing your stack. Remain calm; but remain firm.

In this case, however, it is especially necessary to address the underlying feelings. If you fail to do so, your child will continue to try to act out his or her emotions by stubbornly refusing to go to school, or worse.

You address your child’s feelings simply by acknowledging them. For example, you might say something like this. “Yenty, I know you are still upset about the disagreement we had last night. I can tell that you are feeling angry about what I said. I am perfectly willing to discuss this further with you tonight, after school. You do not need to stay home today to show me how angry you are. I can see that already.”

4. Attention-Seeking

Some children seem to crave attention. Like dry sponges, they soak up as much of their parents’ time as they can. They seem to always need to be noticed by parents and teachers alike.

As a result of their insatiable thirst for attention, these children often devise creative schemes to place themselves on center stage both at home and at school. And nothing puts a child into the spotlight at home any quicker than that age-old line, “I don’t want to go to school today.”

Now you are placed in a double bind. If you try to ignore your child, he or she will simply crank up the volume, trying even harder to get your attention. If you sit down now for a heart-to-heart talk about the “problem,” you will already be reinforcing and rewarding this undesirable behavior. So what should you do?

The best approach would be to hold out the prospect of greater attention, but only during the evening after school. For example, “This seems serious, Shmully. We are going to need a lot of time to discuss this with you so we can understand exactly what it is that is bothering you and why you are so unhappy.

“Your father and I, however, simply do not have that much time right now. I assure you that we are going to be thinking about this all day until you get home tonight and we can talk about this together.”

5. Work Overload

As children grow, their academic responsibilities and homework also increase. And by the time they enter high school, some children feel overwhelmed by the pressure of the workload.

Especially in high school, the academic year can be compared to a marathon race. Those students who expend all of their energy in the beginning will find themselves totally spent before they reach the June finish line. To succeed, students need to pace themselves by taking breaks each day, week and month.

Some children, however, need help in learning how to pace themselves properly. These students find themselves only half- way through a test when the time is up. And they need a vacation weeks before one is scheduled. As a result, they may try “to take a break” by skipping school occasionally.

They may argue that they really need a break because they have been studying so hard for so long. And they may be right. But to let them stay home from school today is to set a bad precedent for the future.

If you let your children stay home from school today, you will be sending the wrong signal. You will be saying, in effect, that whether or not children go to school is up to them; that if they need a break or feel they deserve one, they should simply take off a day whenever they please.

This is not the message you want to give your children. Instead, you want to recognize the effort they have been expending. You also want to acknowledge that breaks are needed and important. But that is why weekends and vacations were invented.

If additional time off is, in fact, necessary, it should only be considered when it is planned in advance, as opposed to on a sudden I’ve-got-to-have-it-now basis. For example, parents could discuss allowing a child once or twice a year to take a “mental-health day,” but only if it is negotiated and agreed to in advance (preferably in consultation with the child’s school).

In this way, parents are not being blackmailed by threats of, “If you don’t let me stay home today, I’ll fail this year, for sure!” In addition, your teenager will be granted the increased autonomy he or she is so desperately seeking. Moreover, by “giving in” a little, you will avoid a full-scale power struggle and confrontation which you can never really win, anyway. Finally, this approach will reduce your chances of being faced with another “I don’t want to go to school” dilemma in the future.

6. Elevated Anxiety

So far, most of the scenarios and complaints described have been the garden variety encountered in every home since compulsory education was devised. This last category is less common and much more difficult to manage.

Suppose your child expresses no specific concern but still protests, with extreme intensity, going to school. You rule out fear of reprisal, testing limits, acting out anger, seeking attention or work overload as the underlying cause. And you are, quite frankly, baffled as to why your child is so adamantly and vehemently opposed to going to school today.

Your child may be crying tears of anguish which appear to you to be genuine. Your child seems frightened, as if gripped by panic. He or she pleads, often in bone-chilling tones, to be allowed to stay home. Your child is literally begging for your mercy. The crying is so intense that involuntarily vomiting may be induced. What is going on here? Why is this happening today? And what should you being doing about it?

If your child is acting this way, he or she may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. Two of the more common such disorders among children are Separation Anxiety Disorder and School Phobia. Since they are two distinct syndromes, they need to be discussed separately.

7. Separation Anxiety Disorder

Some children function normally, play amicably and learn well in school. Their one difficulty is that they experience intense anxiety whenever they are separated from their parents.

All children experience some anxiety when they are separated from their parents. That is natural and healthy. In addition, most children are distressed, initially, by the new challenge of starting school. In fact, crying on the first day of nursery school or kindergarten is so common that the sounds which assault the teacher on that day may sound like a cacophonous chorus.

Most of the time, children are able to achieve a successful adjustment to school in less than a week. If crying persists and the child is under 4 years old, attending a play group, it may mean that the child is simply too young to make a healthy adjustment to school. If the child is over 5 and crying continues for two weeks or more, the parents should consider consulting a child-development expert.

In order to be most helpful during that first stressful week of school, parents need to be supportive and caring, while also being firm and confident that their child will adapt. In addition, parents should avoid becoming alarmed by their child’s tears, which will only serve to convince their child that a real catastrophe is taking place. Finally, parents should try to coax their child to express his or her fears and then offer appropriate reassurances.

For children who are having a difficult time, transitional objects can be sent along to school to provide comfort. A few good examples are a picture of the parents, a small article of a parent’s clothing, a special snack or a favorite toy.

But when children suffer intense anxiety -- well beyond the bounds of what would be considered normal for their age level -- a diagnosis of Separation Anxiety Disorder needs to be considered. If so, professional help may be necessary.

  • The Case of Bracha*

Bracha, for example, was a sad, withdrawn first grader. She had taken a long time to adjust to kindergarten and then pre 1-A. By the time she reached first grade, she was a fair student who was slightly behind in reading. In addition, she had few friends, preferring to play by herself during recess.

Whenever Bracha and her two older siblings were left with a babysitter, Bracha would cry hysterically and cling desperately to either parent. In fact, when she was brought to me for consultation, she refused to enter my office unless one of her parents held her hand on the way in and stayed inside the room for the entire session.

After a few months of play therapy, Bracha learned to express her feelings, gained self-confidence, and mastered her fear of separation. She also improved her reading and social skills.

I knew we had succeeded in our work when Bracha calmly informed me one day that her mother was planning to travel to Eretz Yisrael without her. Bracha related this to me in such a matter-of-fact tone that I realized she was no longer terrified of separations. (She had also long since allowed her parents to sit outside, in the waiting room, during our sessions.)

  • School Phobia

Some children can cope with separations from their parents better than Bracha did, but they experience the same degree of panic and fear when it comes time to go to school. One of the most perplexing features of School Phobia is that it can crop up at any age. Most often, however, it happens sometime during the elementary school years. It can even occur suddenly, without any early warning signs whatsoever.

A child can calmly, happily and uneventfully attend school for months or years without expressing or feeling any opposition. Then, quite abruptly, this former model child will refuse to get on the school bus or set foot in school.

No manner of bribing or threatening helps, as the child digs in his or her heels in stubborn resistance. No specific complaint or explanation is offered to justify this bizarre behavior. And what appears as a temporary “phase” can drag on for weeks and months, trying the nerves of the most patient parents.

Cases of School Phobia tend to call forth an extremely wide range of suggested solutions from well-intentioned but misguided advisers. Some advocate giving the child monetary bribes. Others encourage one parent to briefly sit in class with the child and then sneak out. Then there are those who recommend hitting, or threatening to hit, the child. Some even think they can convince the child to attend school by explaining to him or her the damage that will ensue to his or her social standing. My all-time “favorite,” however, has to be the suggestion to deprive the child of solid food until school attendance resumes!

In over a quarter of a century of clinical practice, I have never even heard of a bona fide case of School Phobia which was resolved by any of those methods. In rare cases, the child may decide on his or her own to return to school, but only after weeks or months of absence.

The only approach which has repeatedly proven effective in getting a child suffering from School Phobia back to school quickly is family counseling. In such cases, it is absolutely essential that both father and mother attend the counseling, which often can be completed in under six sessions. The participation of both parents is so critical to the successful treatment of School Phobia that many therapists refuse to treat these cases unless both parents agree to participate from the start.

Some misguided parents try to shield their children, as well as themselves, from what they see as the “stigma” of counseling. They reason that it is better to wait and hope for the problem to pass rather than “subject” their family to the embarrassment of therapy. In trying to protect themselves from this perceived shame, they wind up disgracing themselves much more by the prolonged absence of their child from school.

Each passing day makes it harder and harder for their child to return to school. Material is being taught that the child is missing. Classmates begin to wonder what is wrong and the child’s social standing erodes dramatically. Furthermore, as the child gets used to “solving” his or her problem by just not going to school, he or she becomes much less eager to find a real solution.

Parents of children suffering from School Phobia often feel overwhelmed and in crisis. Their children, on the other hand, may appear calm and relaxed, as long as they are not forced to go to school. But make no mistake about it -- the child who demonstrates that he or she is beyond the pale of normal childhood functioning (by his or her willfully not going to school) is far more troubled than are his or her parents.

  • The Case of Naftoli*

Consider the case of 12-year-old Naftoli. Two months after he began seventh grade he stopped going to school. Bribing and threatening proved useless. The principal was patient and supportive to the parents, assuring them that Naftoli would be allowed back to school whenever they could get him to attend.

After three weeks, the parents were desperate enough to come for counseling. Naftoli refused to join his parents for the session so they had to come alone.

After five sessions with the parents, it became clear to me that they were subtly undermining each other. Their underlying marital problems were interfering with their efforts to get Naftoli back to school. Once that dynamic was identified and addressed, Naftoli returned to school without any further relapses. Although the parents chose not to continue the counseling to fully resolve their marital conflicts, they nevertheless managed to unentangle Naftoli from their disagreements.

Refusing to go to school is a symptom, indicating that something is wrong and must be corrected. At times, it signifies that the child is suffering a medical, social, academic, or emotional problem. Being able to determine the nature of the underlying problem is a daunting challenge for any parent.

Hopefully, the guidelines presented here will enable you to make more informed determinations about the cause of your child’s reluctance to attend school, and will enable you to respond in the most helpful manner. We cannot be prepared for every possibility. But the more prepared we are, the easier our job as parents becomes.

* Not her real name.

© Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.